Rolling rolling rolling, keep ’em wagons rolling… Right, rolling. It’s hard. How can we make it better?
How to improve the roll is possibly one of the most asked questions in white water kayaking. When I went through a long period of my roll being flat out hopeless it was the most frustrating thing I have ever come across in any activity I have ever taken part in! It’s utterly demoralising, especially when you see others all around you who seem to roll naturally, or who have lungs of steel and manage to hold in there for what seems like 100 attempts, while you pull the deck after a measly single try!
Yep, kayak rolling can be very frustrating. It requires complex physical coordination, a feel for your surroundings, and timing, all the while being subject to the countdown timer that is your lung’s air supply! Yet the whole motion is performed smoothly and is simplistic to look at. Why is it so hard?
What brings you back up?
When I made a concerted effort to get to the bottom of what the hell was going on with my roll I discovered a few things. One of them was that most of the tips given for improving the roll were based on dogmatic teachings that didn’t truly address the real cause of the problems. The second was that we shouldn’t get hung up on ideas such as the C to C roll or sweep roll as an end. Instead such rolls should be viewed as techniques that allow you to try and understand what is really bringing the boat back up. The third was that there is simply no substitute for practice. The fourth is trust. The fifth is crunch.
However, if you don’t have a good grasp of the mechanics of what really brings your boat up, it is difficult to put any focus into your practice. On the other hand if you know what you are supposed to be doing, even if you can’t do it yet, you can at least keep practicing and make that gradual transition into actually performing the movements you intend to be doing.
Trust, young Padawan
Now, about that fourth point, trust. What do I mean? Rolls often fail because we revert to what our instinct wants us to do. Trying to lift our head out of the water or wrenching down on the paddle. It simply doesn’t seem right that the motion we should be doing is going to bring the boat back up. So we simply say in our heads “f**k it!” and do what our instinct tells us to do.
But bring the boat back up the proper motion does. Both the C to C and the sweep roll are two slightly different methods to achieve exactly the same thing. And I’m not referring to rolling the boat up when I say that by the way. I’m referring to the muscles around your waist, which will contract (hence crunch) on one side. And because your torso is buoyant, this means that since your bottom half is hopefully attached to the rest of your body, the knee which is on the side of the boat that the crunch is being done will have no choice but to apply pressure to the hull on that side and roll it back up.
The sweep roll achieves this in one smooth constant motion, while the traditional C to C does it in a more isolated way. Either of those roll style movements makes you ‘crunch’ your waist (oblique) muscles at the side of your body. It is these that provide the majority of the power for the much talked about ‘hip flick’ or uselessly defined ‘lifting of the knee’. But the key thing is, none of these rolls have to be performed quickly to work. They can both be done verrrrrrrrrrrry sleeeeooooowwwlllllllllyyyy if you want, and they will still work with the right technique and motions applied.
Stop trying to roll
And yet I see a lot of people who seemingly find it impossible to trust the proper movements of the roll to bring them back up. They aren’t doing this on purpose. It’s just a mind lock, and they end up constantly reverting to instinct. Lots of dry land practice to get the mechanics might be in order here. So instead they pull down on the paddle, which lifts their head, le sword de la double edge is complete, and plop they go back into the water again. If only they could let go of the idea of trying to roll up at all, and instead relax and focus on trying to perfect the actual movement they need to be doing, they would have more success.
Yes, they might swim a lot as they get used to practicing, but they need to take a step back, stop trying to roll, and instead perfect the movement. The effortless sweep of the paddle – which I might add is as a RESULT of the torso rotation and NOT moving the arms on their own in isolation (another big mistake people make) – the head following the paddle and such like.
But DO NOT under any circumstances try to roll and bring the boat back up. Because as soon as you do that you WILL try and force it. You are learning a movement, not a roll. But what you will find is that if you do the movement right, you will just come up. But as I say, you should not actually try and do that. Just don’t.
Having said that, it is good to purposefully do completely the wrong movements occasionally to remind yourself of what ‘wrong’ feels like and what you shouldn’t be doing, in between trying the ‘good’ motions.
Improving the roll
Once you can roll okay on the flat though, then you need to improve it and make it a practical one. Rolling on the flat is like practicing how to punch against a bag in boxing or martial arts. That’s all very well, but learning how to hit a moving, unwilling opponent in application is a different matter altogether.
There are many weird and wonderful ways that have been come up with over the years to improve the roll. Of course most of these come from the very practical perspective that when you need to roll on the river it is when you least expect it, and you won’t be in a nice set up position.
These range from the cheeky – pushing people over when they least expect it, on flat water or a swimming pool I should add – through to elaborate schemes using ropes to simulate white water in a swimming pool.
All very nice and valid practice, and especially good in the winter when swim after swim is not the nicest prospect.
But there’s no substitute for going over in actual white water. Often paddlers will go out into the flow and flop over on purpose to practice a white water roll. Usually using the good old ‘set up position’. This is okay, but it is hardly an unexpected roll. A more valid variation is to go over and wait and see how long you can wait before trying a roll. This is good for underwater confidence, and one that I can hypocritically admit I haven’t practiced much. But should.
Go over a lot… In the right way
The best way to practice and get better at a roll is simply to go over a lot. But go over a lot unexpectedly, in white water. How do we do this? It probably isn’t the best plan, for instance, to purposefully throw yourself over on the Middle Graveyard or Fingers on the Tryweryn repeatedly for instance. If you did it would certainly be the school of hard knocks. It isn’t practical, nor I would argue, safe, to do this.
Instead, and I can hear the groans already from people I know, the solution is this. Get a playboat and start playboating. That big hefty creek boat simply isn’t going to give you enough unexpected going over experience in a safe environment to make a meaningful reliability improvement unless you are a natural.
Let’s put this into a bit of perspective. If you only paddle a creek boat on grade 2 and 3, if you are a competent paddler you may never go over. Your roll, or what you have of it, will go very rusty indeed. And no, bashing one out at the beginning of each trip doesn’t count. Even if you are prone to going over you may still only go over one to three times per trip.
On the other hand, if you playboat, it doesn’t matter how expert you are, you will still go over and have to roll up. A lot. And it solves that other problem of contrived roll practice in that you’ll be wet and knackered. As real as it gets.
Even in a short morning of playing in a wave or hole, you will be going over multiples of times more than any average river trip. And you’ll be doing so in a relatively safe environment, because the best park and play areas generally just have an area of flat behind them after the boils and wave train.
You don’t even have to have a playboat. You can play around in your creek boat if that’s all you have. However all I will say is that you will get much more feedback for your balance, trim, oh and fun levels, if you have a dedicated boat. Too tall and lanky to fit in a playboat? Not really an excuse given how tall the likes of Pringle and Benny Marr etc are! And they manage just fine! Well then get an older school slicey boat. They cost next to nothing on the used market.
But the key message here, no matter what boat you have, is to start playing in it. You won’t just develop your roll, but with a focus on good technique you will make big improvements to your paddling skills in many other areas as well and taking the mystery out of features such as holes.
Just have fun
One last point. A lot of paddlers are focussed on their roll as a sign of being competent kayaker. Yes, trips are made a lot safer if you have a reliable roll, but it isn’t the be all and end all of paddling. This is why I emphasise getting out in a playboat. You are having a fun day in a kayak where going over a lot is simply part and parcel of it, and as a result you will simply make improvements naturally, while at the same time making many other, just as valid, and fun, achievements.
Fun fact: One of the main pioneers of surfing in the UK couldn’t swim.
NB: I’m not perfect myself by any stretch.